December 24, 2020 Category: Religion


The proposition that fasting is a spiritual exercise that builds self-discipline–or somehow bolsters mental discipline–is based on shoddy reasoning; as well as pseudo-science.  Dehydration and/or lack of glucose wreaks havoc on the prefrontal cortex. {17}  In other words, it IMPAIRS the part of the brain responsible for higher cognitive functioning; and thus for, well, mental discipline.  Such discipline has been valued in spiritual practice since the Iron Age.  It’s what the Ancient Greeks called “askesis” / “apatheia”.  (Aristotle dubbed it “enkrateia”.  Immanuel Kant dubbed it “maturity”.)

The cultivation of self-discipline is a laudable enterprise.  But spiritual edification via physical privation?  Fasting in order to focus the mind?  One may as well heat water in order to produce ice.  Malnutrition is a surefire way to induce delirium; not a way to augment lucidity.

Depriving one’s body of sustenance can, as it were, “break one down” both physically and psychologically–rendering one much more susceptible to suggestibility; and thereby primed for manipulation.  Deprivation of ANYTHING the body needs for daily life renders one more open to persuasion.  Hungry people are much more easily manipulated.  (As discussed above, this is the same idea behind obligatory displays of supplication.)

Procuring mental discipline is not done through caloric deficiency.  Fasting in a gambit to bolster one’s mental faculties is like depriving oneself of protein in order to build muscle.  If one lived in opposite-world, such a gambit might work quite well.  Yet back here in Reality, it is asinine.

Concentration requires calories (as well as oxygen).  Maintaining the body’s weal is not a mere “distraction”…like reading tabloid rags, playing video games, carousing bars in search of a tryst, shopping for haut couture, browsing on social media, and watching Reality TV.  And supplying the body with crucial nutrients is hardly an excursion into hedonism.  There is nothing indulgent about nourishment.

It should be obvious that basic nutrition is not recreation.  Yet oodles of misinformation proliferates about how marvelous fasting can be for one’s intellectual and/or spiritual acumen.  One is reminded of tobacco companies persuading smokers that smoking might actually be GOOD for you.

For some people, this ancient practice may seem to (sometimes) work because the nutrient-deprived brain/body experiences a delirium that can be misconstrued as an ENHANCEMENT–rather than deterioration–of one’s mental faculties.  This misapprehension is due to the fact that the reverie is often experienced as some kind of exultation, as if one is being transported.  For those seeking to manipulate followers, this is all the more reason to encourage the practice.

The ILLUSION OF focus is all that’s needed to sustain this psychical boondoggle.  Similarly, during an acid trip, there is the illusion of perceiving the cosmos at some dazzling “higher” level.  By hijacking one’s neural network, one can be tricked into thinking it is accessing wonderful things.  That’s why it’s called a “trip”.  (The catch: It’s a round-trip flight that often lands back on lower ground.)  Such misperception is comparable to the illusion that alcohol consumption “warms you up”–causing a sensation the tricks one into thinking that imbibing has a beneficial effect in cold weather.  The thing with intoxication is that DURING the intoxication, one cannot tell that one has been disconnected with Reality.  Such is the nature of hampered judgement: It doesn’t see itself as hampered.

This mesmerizing cognitive handicap is the same reason some mystics resort to drugs in order to facilitate their purportedly “elevated” states.  They interpret the chemically-induced high as an augmentation of their ability to perceive things.  It’s as if the intoxication were an indication of sublimity.  “WOW.  It’s WORKING,” says the junkie after his next hit. {18}

When it comes to RELIGIOUS fasting, the abstention is communal.  The shared sacrifice–as a routine–is a way of fostering tribalism (read: immersion in the group) as well as a way to prove one’s loyalty to fellow travelers.  The message is essentially: “We’ve all gone through this together, so now we have a common bond.”  By enduring tribulation, participants formed a brotherhood.  Shared sacrifice–and shared aspiration–is, after all, a basic vehicle for human connection.  Hence it is a surefire way to foster BOTH fidelity to the cause and AND communal solidarity.

Asceticism in general is a demonstration of commitment (as well as devotion): “I’m so dedicated to [insert cause here] that I’m willing to [insert burden here].”  It’s the same logic employed in frat-house hazing rituals on college campuses.

In his book, “The Folly Of Fools”, Robert Trivers explains that “the more costly the requirements imposed on group members in a [religious] commune (regarding food, tobacco, clothing, hairstyle, sex, communication with outsiders, fasts, and mutual criticism), the longer the survival of a religious commune; though there is no association between cost and survival in the non-religious.”  How does this work?  “According to cognitive dissonance theory, greater cost needs to be rationalized, leading to greater self-deception (in this case, in the direction of group identity and solidarity).  Why do religions provide more fertile ground for this process [of self-deception] than secular communes?  Perhaps because religions provide a much more comprehensive logic for justifying [otherwise unfounded] beliefs and actions” (p. 281-282).  The cognitive debilitation that is concomitant with nutrient deprivation enables this all to work well.

In light of this, “sawm” (fasting) during the lunar month of Ramadan makes perfect sense–IF, that is, the purpose is conformity (coordinated supplication) and mental docility.  After all, “we’re all in this together” facilitates communal solidarity.  Meanwhile, each evening (during “iftar”), everyone gets to gather together and thank god as they revel in the breaking of the fast.  The satisfaction derived from finally eating (after a day of forced deprivation) can then be attributed to the deity’s good grace.

The more outlandish the claims, the more appeal they have for the True Believer (a feature noted by evolutionary psychologist, Scott Atran in his “In Gods We Trust”).  Robert Trivers adds that “self-deception deforms human cognitive functions” and that “systems of knowledge” are thereby “systematically deformed”.  Consequently, we should expect “knowledge to be more deformed the more deformation is advantageous to those in control” (p. 303).  Thus, one can control people without them noticing that you are, indeed, trying to control them.  The illusion of autonomy is maintained.  One persuades people to “play along”, thereby getting them to RENDER THEMSELVES more manipulatable.

For Muslims, “sawm” is sunrise to sundown for a full lunar month–and includes abstention from hydration.  The Baha’i opted to do a daylight fast, but for only 19 days (during the month of “Ala” instead of for the full lunar month of Ramadan).  In both cases, the participants see their abstention as an opportunity for spiritual purification.  Forthwith, we will evaluate the Islamic version of fasting, as it is the most well-known illustration.

Ramadan is the most auspicious month of the Ishmaelite lunar calendar (the ninth).  It is purported to be the approximate time that the first “revelation” was delivered to Mohammed of Mecca in the cave on Gar Hira c. 610…on the so-called “Night of Destiny / Power” [“Laylat al-Qadr”].  As a commemoration of this event, Mohammedans opted to engage in a month of “sawm” [fasting; derived from the Syriac term for “abstinence”] as a demonstration of fealty, and as a means of spiritual purification.

Well, that was the idea, anyway.  All it really was, though, was a continuation–or, rather, appropriation–of the pagan ritual of fasting for one month each year…according to the lunar calendar used by the Nabateans and other Syriac peoples.  The practice was also cribbed from the Mandaeans of al-Jazira–who had this sacrament long before Mohammed undertook his ministry.  The Sahabah merely sought to preserve the antecedent traditions of fasting that their forebears had been engaging in for centuries.

The idea of fasting for a month (according to the lunar calendar) dates back THOUSANDS of years.  Indeed, Hindu fasting could be said to be the original fasting.  Fasting during the Vedic month of “Shravan[a]” involves a much more enlightened approach than the debilitating–nay, dictatorial–nature of Islamic fasting during Ramadan.  Water is permitted during this fast; and one chooses the one time each day that one eats.

As with the oldest (Vedic) version of fasting, the pre-Islamic Hijazi version allowed people to drink water during the fast.  The Islamic version, repackaged as a novel idea, demanded that supplicants even deprive themselves of hydration.  Rather than selecting one time to eat, it enjoins one to feast before sunrise and after sunset…while enduring dehydration during daylight hours. {17}  Due to daily pre-dawn and post-dusk binges, food-consumption during Ramadan actually INCREASES amongst participants.

It comes as no surprise, then, that hospitalizations in Muslim-majority countries skyrocket during this period.  In addition to dehydration, gluttony becomes a widespread problem, as those who engage in daytime fasting often end up hastily engorging themselves prior to sunrise and after sunset–thereby nullifying the point of abstinence: relating to those who are ACTUALLY deprived of food.  Empathizing with those who are enduring privation–and thus chronically malnourished–is difficult when one can look forward to “iftar” each evening.

Fictions about the health benefits of fasting are only a recent development.  Traditionally, the most common rational for fasting is that it helps one cultivate self-discipline (as a way to enhance one’s will-power), as with “shravan[a]” in Hinduism.  (Again: In the original fasting traditions, hydration was permitted; and it is one’s prerogative when one has the allotted single meal).  Indeed, the Koran says that the point of fasting is to procure “self-restraint” (2:183)…even as “iftar” (the nightly breaking of the fast) typically involves participants suddenly engorging on food–a reprieve for those with desperate, empty stomachs.  The irony would be comic if it weren’t taken so seriously by so many.

But does this REALLY help one to appreciate food more–and thus empathize with the poor?  To reiterate: Even when sincere, the gesture often backfires, as eating (after sunset and before sunrise) INCREASES for many of those who participate in this sacrament.  Due to the errant eating schedule, people end up oscillating between deprivation and gluttony–as hunger pangs are rendered erratic and extreme.  Thus overall food consumption actually goes UP in most places where “sawm” honored.

There are other problems.  In casting the time-frame for fasting in terms of sunlight, the Creator of the Universe also seemed unaware of (fatal) problems that would arise for Muslims living at higher latitudes.  Clearly, god did not foresee Nordic Muslims…nor did he even seem to be aware that the Earth was a spherical body rotating on a tilted axis.

The irony is that Ramadan is characterized by over-eating (pre-dawn and post-dusk binging, separated by bouts of privation) and a drastic increase is sickness (due to weakened immune systems).

Across the Muslim world, there is a surge in hospital visits–a predictable result when dehydration and malnourishment are enforced over several weeks.

But why fast?  We are told that the primary purpose of “sawm” is to cultivate “taqwa”.  But what is that?  The term is telling, as it conflates two ideations: piety and fear of god.  Piety, then, is a function of god-fear, both of which are necessary if one is to fare well on Judgement Day.  In a sense, piety is a way of securing PROTECTION (from damnation) on the day of the Last Judgment: “Qiyamah”.  As with the Torah, one is exhorted to FEAR god in order to be protected from his wrath.  Hence Ramadan affords one an opportunity to remind oneself of the urgent need to procure “taqwa”; as THAT is the means by which one can protect oneself.  From what?  From god’s judgement.

Note that none of this has anything to do with philanthropy.  One is enjoined to be entirely self-involved.  Indeed, the entire point of “taqwa” is to save one’s own hide when the appointed hour arrives.  In sum: The idea is not to promote good will toward one’s fellow man; it’s to avoid hellfire…and to secure one’s ticket to Paradise (see Appendix 2).

The Mohammedan fixation on the crescent moon (which was originally associated with the Bedouin god, Hubal) is evident in MoM’s command: “When you see the crescent moon [at the beginning of the 9th month of the lunar calendar], start fasting; and when you see [the next] crescent moon, stop fasting” (Bukhari 3/31/124).  This is another reminder that MoM and his audience were under the impression that the entire world experienced the same daylight hours, as well as the same moon phases in concurrence.  It is also a reminder that Mohammedan traditions were adapted from antecedent pagan traditions.  For during MoM’s lifetime, Hubal was worshipped from Petra in Nabataea, down through the Hijaz, to Sana’a in Yemen.  Hubal’s icon was an upward-turned crescent moon. {23}  (Sound familiar?)  And yes: Each year, the pagan Bedouins of the region fasted for a lunar month.

Let’s review the reasoning behind this practice.

The Islamic ritual is based on verse 183 of surah 2.  The idea is that one month of “sawm” helps everyone to be more empathetic toward those who are destitute.  At first blush, this sounds reasonable; until one thinks about it for more than a minute.

It is worth noting that the FOLLOWING verse (2:184) proposes an ALTERNATIVE to fasting: feeding those in need.  Charity and temperance are, of course, to be encouraged.  Such things do not require behavior that is deleterious to one’s own (mental or physical) health.

Islamic apologists insist that “sawm” confers some kind of benefit to one’s physiology–as with, say, holistic “cleanses” in the modern day.  This is hokum.  Gratuitously imposing malnourishment / dehydration on oneself does not enable one to more adeptly help the impoverished.  It merely takes attention away from others and puts it on oneself.  Simply RESCHEDULING bouts of gluttony each day is not the same as avoiding gluttony altogether; it is a hollow gesture that helps no one.

The notion that self-inflicted privation is the best way to cultivate empathy is myopic.  “You’re starving?  Well, then I’ll kinda-sorta starve myself too; but just during daylight hours, and just for a month.  Then, perhaps I’ll appreciate your dire straits during the other eleven months of the year.  Let me know if that helps.” {19}

Is this really the best way to grasp the plight of those in need?  Is it a prudent way to alleviate the tribulation of those who aren’t allowed to indulge in feasts each morning and evening?  As mentioned, Ramadan entails pre-dawn and twilight binge-eating: two feasts per day, separated by daytime abstinence.  This precludes the chance to experience what it might be like to be CHRONICALLY impoverished–nullifying the purported purpose: cultivating empathy.

Rather than deprive oneself of sustenance, it is prudent to attend to one’s own well-being–and thereby one’s capacity to help; taking care not to slip into self-absorption while doing so.  After all, one is better equipped to contribute to the commonweal when one’s own weal has been attended to.  (This is the logic behind the “oxygen mask” rule for parents on airliners.)

One of the rationals for fasting is that it is somehow healthy.  But depriving one’s body of sustenance–including hydration–does not, in any way, bolster one’s health.

Fasting is a form of asceticism.  That is to say, it is a way of broadcasting that one is sincerely committed.  Self-abnegation is a common display of piety, as it makes a statement: “I’m so dedicated, look what I’m willing to do!”  (We find the same obtuse thinking with votaries’ discretionary sacrifice during “lent” in the Roman Catholic tradition.)  The idea is to prove oneself by showing that one is willing to endure discomfort, deprivation, or even (self-inflicted) pain.  By showcasing one’s dedication, one is deemed a loyal member of the tribe (and a disciplined votary).  When Christians do this, it is about empathizing with the Passion of Jesus; when Jews do it, it is in commemoration of the Hebrews’ (fabled) forty years in the desert.  The message is essentially: “I’m willing to do this; so you can see that I’m serious about my commitment to the cause”.  The expectation is that others will observe: “He’s willing to do THAT.  Gosh-golly!  He MUST be a True Believer.”  (This is the rational behind arduous initiation rites when determining who is worthy of being inducted into an exclusive organization.)  Thus fasting is taken as an exhibition of one’s fealty to a deity who, it is supposed, is appeased by such gestures.  Ergo 2:183-187 in the Koran.  

The key is that people do this with others; as COMMUNAL fasting is a way to forge fraternal bonds.  The point is that supplicants go through a shared experience.  (Again: A sense of camaraderie is formed when enduring an ordeal with fellow travelers–as with “hazing” by college fraternities.)

The “catch” is that collective asceticism tends to also engender dysfunctional proclivities–servility, group-think, parochialism, etc.  That is to say: It tends to stymie independent thought while fostering tribalism.  It is where neurosis meets a tribalistic mindset.  Rites of passage are, after all, demonstrations of obeisance.  Asceticism is thus a facilitator of conformity.  (One might say that collective asceticism FETISHIZES conformity.)  This is another case where hubris is passed off as a kind of humility.  (Self-abnegation often involves a kind of conceit, as one needs to be self-absorbed in order for it to make sense.)

The exhortation to fast in 2:183-187 is nothing new.  Leaders of cult movements that encourage asceticism have, of course, figured out that those who participate are more prone to submission, and thus to compliance.  (People are far more open to suggestibility when they are bereft.)  Moreover, forced deprivation leads to dependency.  Hence “sawm” is an effective way to keep the flock subdued…and to keep participants “in line”.

It should go without saying that there are much healthier ways to foster communal solidarity than to engage in prolonged fasting.  More generally: There are far better ways to forge human bonds and/or to show devotion than to partake in self-inflicted deprivation.

Needless to say, there are much, much better ways to bolster self-discipline.  Moreover, there are far less dysfunctional ways to eschew extraneous distractions (in order to focus one’s mind).  It’s one thing to reject superficial “worldly” pleasures (i.e. gratuitous indulgences which–invariably–are unedifying diversions from the cultivation of well-being); it’s quite another thing to deprive oneself of vital nutrients for a long period of time.  As discussed earlier, famished / dehydrated people have difficulty focusing.

If the point was to show devotion or to encourage self-discipline, we now know that there are other means by which one can realize such an admirable goal–none of which involve engaging in unhealthy practices.  Making oneself more prone to suggestion (that is: more susceptible to thought control) is not a prerequisite for self-discipline.  Prudence, born of autonomy, is not the same thing as privation.  Judicious-ness is not born of self-imposed destitution.

So why the ninth lunar month?

This was supposedly the month that Mohammedan brigands slaughtered the Qurayshi merchant caravan at the wells of Badr in 624: the opening salvo of what would become a hegemonic movement.  According to Islamic lore, it is also the month that the Torah was given to Moses, the Psalms were given to David, and the Gospel was given to Jesus of Nazareth.  Unsurprisingly, it is ALSO the month that Mohammed is purported to have received HIS first revelation in 610.  Gee-wiz.  And to top it off, it is–so the story goes–the month that Mohammed seized Mecca at the beginning of 630. {20}

What other fantastical things do we hear about this particular month?  There is a raft of outlandish superstitions regarding the occasion–notably: temporary demonic sequestration.  According to this this theological tid-bit, the Creator Of The Universe decided to enchain all the world’s evil genies for the month.  Consequently, Ramadan is the one time each year that the Abrahamic deity decides to lock up all the “djinn” on Earth…for one lunar cycle.  This annual observance implies three rather peculiar things:

God can, at will–at any time–simply gather up all of Satan’s minions and quarantine them.  Yet he chooses not to do so eleven months of the year.

There is a day–ironically, on Eid al-Fitr–that god opts to UN-chain all of these evil genies, thus deliberately unleashing them upon mankind on an annual basis.  It would seem that this is not an occasion for revelry.

There exist hordes of evil genies; and they populate the world at god’s pleasure.

Unsurprisingly, while celebrating the “breaking of the fast” (Eid al-Fitr is fashioned as a festive occasion), few supplicants are wary of the fact that, that very evening, the world’s demons are about to be discharged.  (Before doing so, we might assume god waits until everyone is finished desert.)  In fact, we are told that the “djinn” are relegated back to hell, and that god closes the gates of hell–to keep them penned up inside for the duration of the month.

That the Abrahamic deity deliberately ensures the world will be plagued by demonic forces for 11 out of 12 (lunar) months would seem to indicate that he uses the world as a staging ground.  For what?  Well, life is a test; and nefarious forces are intentionally loosed upon the Earth as means of vetting us.

Why, then, do the vast majority of Muslims treat Eid al-Fitr as a convivial affair (other than the fact that they finally get to eat regularly again)?  The answer can only be that they are not pre-occupied with the ORIGINAL raison d’etre of the holiday.  Rather than dreading the alleged dire events afoot (the unleashing of djinn upon the world from their temporary incarceration), the focus is on coming together to enjoy each other’s company; and to count one’s blessings (“birkat” in the Semitic vernacular). {21}

When the majority of Muslims celebrate Eid al-Fitr, exactly what time of year the “Seal of the Prophets” may or may not have received a purported revelation is entirely beside the point.

Bottom line: Fasting is not a salubrious practice.  Malnourishment is not a kind of “purification” (especially when it involves lack of hydration all day long, day after day, in hot weather); and it is certainly not the best way to cultivate self-discipline.  Not taking food and water for granted is a laudable endeavor.  Doing something that is detrimental to one’s well-being is an altogether different matter.  Temperance doesn’t require impoverishment.  But privation sure comes in handy when one is trying to keep people compliant.  That’s why authorities since time immemorial have always made a concerted effort to ensure the rabble remained somewhat needy.

In the final analysis, spirituality is about tapping into the divine–something that not only pervades the universe (pantheism), but suffuses everything within it (panentheism).  To wit: The divine is in each one of us.  Consequently, it is not a matter of what we do, but of who we are.  Ritual has no bearing on character.

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